Born in Mississippi in 1908, the grandson of former slaves, Richard Wright spent his teenage years chopping wood, carrying coal, scrubbing floors, and enduring a thousand indignities. Later, in novels such as Native Son
and The Outsider
as well as works of journalism and autobiography, he raised profoundly disturbing questions about the "nightmarish jungle" of race relations in contemporary America, offering profoundly pessimistic answers in return.
For his troubles, literary historian Hazel Rowley shows in this sweeping biography, Wright earned a large readership--even, for a time, a place on the bestseller lists and the top income-tax bracket. But, because he had joined the Communist Party as a young man, he was also denounced from the floor of the United States Senate--accused of anti-Americanism and even suspected of spying for Moscow--and his books were banned in several states and cities. Wright protested that he had repudiated Marxism years before, bitterly remarking, "The Western world must make up its mind as to whether it hates colored people more than it hates Communists." Eventually, a prophet without honor, he left his native country and lived out the rest of his years in France, where he is buried.
Rowley draws on a wealth of archival material (as she notes, "Wright kept everything--drafts of manuscripts, letters, photographs, hotel bills, newspaper cuttings") and his body of work to portray the justly angry writer. The result is a welcome contribution to literary and historical studies. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Born into crushing poverty in rural Mississippi, Richard Wright (1908-1960) became one of the most celebrated African-American writers of his time, best known for the controversial Native Son and his autobiographical Black Boy. Wright spent his writing career bearing witness to American racism; in Native Son's unforgettable Bigger Thomas, he created a character too furious, uncompromising and vivid for mainstream white society to ignore. But Wright's literary success was not easily won. His Communist Party connections disbarred him from the establishment; his later renunciation of those same connections made him a pariah on the left, accused of pandering to white expectations. At this point, says Rowley, Wright was so embattled that he "could no longer see degrees of subtleties." Rowley (Christina Stead: A Biography) explores the roots of Wright's simmering fury and his conflicted drive toward social commentary. She renders accessible the facts of Wright's life and earnestly attempts to reconstruct his milieu. The narrative, however, is marred by its own sincerity: Rowley often succumbs to a biographer's rapt psychologizing ("five-year-old Richard had to help with the shopping... he felt proud to be so grown up"), and her efforts to enliven the story by resorting to present tense tableaux are ill-fated at best ("The big city is frightening. The traffic is chaotic.... What a din!"). These misguided stylistic choices make it difficult to consider Rowley's work with the gravity her research deserves; still, her competent treatment of Wright's life should satisfy those seeking to know more about the man behind the seminal work. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Aug. 14)
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